Suspended Youth Drug Court may reappear as grant-funded program

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County’s presiding juvenile court judge says she will know early in the new year if the long-running youth drug court program, which was put on hold in late 2015, will be resurrected, modified or scrapped. KXAN first reported the suspension in September.

Judge Rhonda Hurley, who presides over the 98th Civil District Court, says staff is crunching the statistics to find out how many youths are suitable for a formal drug court with an eye to lowering the number of kids who return to abusing drugs and breaking laws. The answers may lie in taking on a community-based approach, where an outside agency takes the reins, offering intensive substance abuse and anti-criminal behavior therapy, but allowing the youth to remain living at home with family. The next step would be residential placement.

“We’re going to look at our data to see which kids match our admissions criteria for drug court and see what the size of the target population is,” Hurley explained. “If it’s a small group would they still benefit from a drug court? Do we need to do it on a smaller scale, or do we need to set up a different structure other than the drug court?”

Traditionally, in Travis County, young offenders in the ‘deep end’ of their addition would appear before a Drug Court judge as a last ditch effort to avoid longer-term placement. A juvenile judge would encourage the kids to work closely with their parents or guardians, drug counselors and probation officers to finish treatment and stay clean. Unlike more successful adult drug courts across the country, Travis County’s youth program was not diversionary in nature.

“What we’re looking at is kids who are using serious, hard-core drugs like cocaine, speed, kush and they’re using quite frequently and it’s interrupting their ability to perform in school and contributing to their committing [crimes]… that serve their addiction,” Hurley said.

The decision to suspend the Youth Drug Court in mid-2015 was part of a Juvenile Court overhaul aimed at moving programs away from detention and more toward such evidence-based practices that get kids healthy and keep them out of jail.

Hurley says the old program which had been in place since 2001 was halted last October after recidivism numbers rose to 77 percent, well beyond the national figures of 50 percent. Of 47 youth in the program in 2015, only 11 ‘graduated.’

The county’s Juvenile Probation Department recently received the go-ahead for a $250,000 state grant to fund an outside program that would be run by a local private provider. The approach is different, with treatment leaning towards research-based evidence. It is known as functional family therapy and is touted for addressing needs of kids across a spectrum of addiction and behavioral programs to ensure a “best fit.”

“We’re still looking, but so far I think FFT will be a really great match substance abuse issues for kids,” acknowledged Judge Hurley. In Austin, a group called Southwest Key provides other youth services but could broaden its scope to include substance abuse treatments, Hurley suggests.

Since the project must go out to bid under county procurement rules, Hurley says any service contract is not likely to begin locally until April or May of 2017.